If the average person, unfamiliar with chickens were asked to describe what a chicken looks like, they’d probably describe a white feathered bird with a bright red comb. After all, that’s generally what you see in video or in ads. Ask someone who is familiar with these busy little feathered friends and they’ll tell you something much MUCH different.
Today’s market offers soo much more than most people realize. My personal favorite hatchery offers 44 different breeds – of the brown egg layers alone! That does not include breeds that lay white shells, colored shells, rare breeds (exotic) or even meat birds (chicken to fill your freezer). And then of course are the miniature versions (bantams) or the really big chickens. With such a wide variety, it’s no wonder that chickens are becoming popular in people’s backyards.
But then, with so many options, where’s a beginner to start?
In this article, we will go through five easy steps that should get you well on your way towards being an official flock herder. This is by no means the end-all of things you will learn, as chickens love to be unpredictable – which is one of the things that make them so much fun! But you should have a solid grasp on the basics of chicken care. Enough so to take your first leap with confidence.
Do Your Homework… By Shopping For Chicks!
How’s that for a great way to start a new endeavor?
Please let me clarify.
When I say ‘go shopping,’ I don’t mean just go out and buy a dozen of those adorable little fuzzballs you saw at the store. A few have started this way (myself included) and have accidentally stumbled onto some form of success. It is fun, it is impulsive, but it is also naive and somewhat irresponsible.
What I’m really trying to say is, know what is available. As I mentioned above, there are soo many different breeds available for purchase, you really need to take your time and understand the options. And the best way to do this is to shop.
I really recommend that you go online and just started looking at whatever catches your eye. Looks at the cool birds, look at the plain birds, look at the ‘I’m-not-really-sure-what-that-is’ birds. And when you’ve made a list of potentials, then go to the section for characteristics and start reading. Here are a few things that you should specifically look out for.
- Do they lay eggs and if so how many? One of the biggest rewards for a flock owner is having a steady supply of ‘farm fresh’ eggs right in your backyard. It will surprise you how many friends show up, showing an interest in these novelty morsels. If your flock is too small, you might end up with a waiting list for people who want eggs. If your flock is too big, you won’t be able to give enough away! Knowing how many eggs you might want on a weekly basis will help you decide on which breed and how many chickens you should start with.
- Is this a meat bird? A meat bird is a chicken meant for butchering. Don’t buy a meat bird if you’re looking to have a lot of eggs, as you might find yourself with a flock of muscle-bound, bruno-like chickens that never use the nesting box.
- Is this bird dual purpose? Dual purpose means that the chicken can provide you with eggs and meat – ie; they are stocky enough to butcher while still laying eggs (it’s good to have options). For homeowners like myself, having a flock of birds like this is like having insurance should things ever go bad at the grocery store.
- Is this breed suitable for my climate? Depending on where you live, certain breeds of chicken might not be well-suited for your backyard. If you live in a cold climate, make sure that you pick a breed that is cold-hardy. A chicken that is better suited for hot climates will have bigger combs and wattles and these fleshy appendages are sure to suffer from frost bite if exposed to freezing temperatures.
- What is the temperament of this breed? Chickens have been bred with a variety of desirable attributes in mind and behavior is certainly one of those attributes. If you have children or a friendly canine companion, it will not serve you well to have a flock of birds that were ‘originally bred as fighting birds’ (that is an actual characteristic I have come across). Some chicken breeds are quite docile and friendly, so be sure and look for this in the breed’s description.
- How much space does this breed need? Some chickens will do very well in a confined setting. Other birds, however, are going to be a little more ‘flighty’ – meaning a chicken run might not be good for them. If you have limited space, then be sure to look for birds that can handle being in a chicken run.
- Broodiness The instinct to hatch a clutch of eggs affects some breeds more than others. If you have fertilized eggs for your hen to hatch, this is not a really big issue. If your flock is all girls though, going broody can be a problem as they generally don’t come out of broody on their own – meaning without intervention they can die. It might be smart to avoid the broodier breeds until you’ve got some experience.
As you to take notes on each breed’s characteristics, you should begin to understand not only what is needed to care for a flock, but which kind of bird will best fit you. Shopping like this is a LOT OF FUN and will really pay off for you in the long term. Find the breed of chicken that best matches you. If you can do that, then you and your flock will be happier for it.
### Important Note ###
Before you purchase anything related to your new flock, be sure and check if it’s legal to have chickens where you live. Some places do not allow it.
Also, I strongly advise the beginner NOT to buy a rooster as a rooster can display aggressive behavior at times. And while not being inherently mean, the consequences from a rooster’s attack can be significant; especially to small children or pets.
Time Your Purchase
When purchasing your first batch of chicks, it’s critical that you to time the purchase. It can be really easy to get excited and spring for a batch of chicks too early or wait too long to order and find that your chicks are not available. I know both of these mistakes on a personal level.
I was shopping at a feed store, one February, when I saw chicks (meat birds) on sale. Being one who really likes to save money, I bought 15 of them on the spot. Did I mention it was February?
For those who are new to chickens, meat birds are chickens meant for the freezer – an alternative to buying packages of meat from the market. Unfortunately, meat birds, specifically the Cornish Cross breed, grow phenomenally fast.
Baby chicks have specific temperature needs as they are not yet fully feathered – meaning they need to be indoors and out of the weather with supplemental heat. And considering that I live in a very cold climate, I SHOULD have considered this when I bought the chicks. Sadly, my impulsive nature neglected to remember and my wallet paid the price for it.
Within about 3 weeks, I found myself replacing the brooder bedding (used to absorb waste) every day. By week 5, I was replacing it twice a day. Any savings I might have made on the purchase price of the chicks was annihilated by having to buy excessive bedding. If I had waited until late summer, when the outdoor temperatures are warmer, I could have raised the chicks outdoors, thus eliminating the cost of bedding.
One particular spring, I thought I’d do the festive thing and have some baby chicks for Easter. Being about a month out, I gathered the family around the computer to pick out some chicks… only to see everything sold out – for like the next 2 months!
Consequently, now I when I shop for the spring flock, I put my order in waaay ahead of time – like in February.
Be sure and put some thought into when you want to get your chicks as the outdoor temperatures will most certainly play a major role into the cost of bedding and how much time you are required to spend cleaning ‘poo’.
Also, plan 6 to 8 weeks out on ordering chicks from online hatcheries – as they are not a ‘just in time’ sort of facility.
Plan Your Brooder
Planning your brooder will be a good test as to whether or not you should commit to raising chickens. If, while doing your homework, you find yourself overwhelmed at the demands of raising chicks – specifically, their first 8 weeks of life – then you should probably not raise chickens.
I’m not saying this to be mean and by no means are chicks inherently difficult to raise. But raising chicks is completely different than raising say a puppy or a kitten. Chicks require not only supplemental heat, but they need to be shown, this is water, this is food. Also, chicks can fly – meaning, they might not be where you left them!
The six main concepts you need to remember for setting up the right brooder are; protection (containment), heat, space, bedding, food and water.
Chickens are curious creatures and this trait is obvious within days of hatching. I’ve seen chicks scratch and peck at the ground within moments of release. Keeping them contained, will go a long ways towards their safety.
The brooder design that has really worked for us, is a 2 by 8 foot container made of Oriented Strand Board (aka; particle board). If you want to know how to build one for less than $20 check out The Perfect Brooder. We have found that it has enough space to house the chicks until they are fully feathered, while also being easily disassembled and stored for when not in use.
Chicks will hatch with a very soft and fuzzy covering called down. And while this down is adorable, it is not enough. Those small bodies just don’t have the capacity to generate the heat that they need. In the case where mama hen is available, she will hold them close to her body and use her heat to warm them up. However, if mama hen is not available, then keeping them warm is up to you.
For this reason we use a heat lamp to warm the brooder, providing them the temperature they need to peck and scratch their days away while waiting for their adult feathers to grow in.
With regards to the exact temperature a brooder needs to be, there are a lot of numbers floating around. Originally, I tried to follow these numbers exactly. However, I’ve since learned to let the chicks tell me if they’re hot or cold.
With our brooder being so long (they like the length to run), I will place the heat lamp all the way to one end. If I see the chicks all huddled together directly under the lamp, I know that they are a cold and I will lower the lamp to bring the heat closure. Likewise, if I see them far away from the lamp, I know that they are hot and I’ll raise the heat lamp in order to cool things off.
We’ve found that each batch of chicks that we raise are always a little different. Observing them in their distance to the heat lamp, is a much better service than sticking to ‘the numbers’.
When you open your box of chicks for the first time, you won’t think too much about providing them space – as they are TINY! You could probably fit 30 or so in the average mailbox. But fast-forward six or seven weeks and your tiny chicks will be roughly the size of a crow and full of energy. Please keep that in mind when planning your brooder.
Depending on outside temperatures, it will take roughly 8 weeks for your chicks to be feathered enough to spend the night outdoors.
If the brooder is too small, then your birds, in their teenage angst, are sure to start fighting. This will most certainly be a stress filled environment for them to pass their time in. Make sure your chicks have adequate space while their waiting to go outdoors.
The importance of bedding in brooders is often overlooked. Baby chicks need to stay warm and nothing sucks the heat of a small body than laying on the cold ground. For this reason, I always make sure to put at least 2 inches of bedding in the area where they sleep. I won’t put that much by the food or more specifically, the water, but I definitely make it a point to give them an ample insulating buffer between them and the ground as they sleep.
With regards to what makes the best bedding for chicks, we have always used some sort of pine shavings. These are fairly affordable and do a great job of absorbing not only their waste, but the odor as well. I’ve never really noticed the chicks preferring the fine shavings over the large shavings, so use your best judgment as to what works best for your flock.
What I would not recommend for brand new chicks is using sand or straw. With regards to sand, not only is it difficult to keep warm, but there’s a good chance your new chick is going to eat some of the sand. And while a little won’t do much, eating too much could cause them serious harm. Straw isn’t good for them either as it will have too much dust in it. Constant exposure to this could cause respiratory problems.
### Important Note ###
One thing you must never put on the floor of your brooder is cardboard! While cardboard may do a good job of absorbing fluid, it is also very slippery. A baby chick could very easily injury themselves – including a broken leg – if made to walk across cardboard.
Food is the easy part.
Baby chicks need ‘Starter Feed’ as nothing else will work for them. It’s that simple.
With regards to how you give it to them, some people use rabbit bowls as this prevents the chicks from sitting on top of the feeder (which can start as early as 3 weeks). And for the record, sitting on the feeder isn’t the problem, it’s the pooing from up on top as this waste inevitably falls into the food below.
I tend to avoid rabbit bowls, however, as the chicks will walk through their food and I find that rabbit bowls tend to have a somewhat polished and slippery surface.
A proper chick feeder can be purchased for around $10. For us, I have found that these feeders tend to reduce my work load as I can fill them once and not have to worry about food again until they’ve emptied it. Yes, I will occasionally have to clean out some poo, but the loss in feed is negligible.
Aside from brooder temperature, water is probably the most troublesome issue involved in raising chicks.
First, chicks have to be shown, ‘this is water’. For an in-depth look at introducing chicks to water read, ‘Feeding Chickens’.
The second issue with chicks and a water supply is, once again, sitting on top of the waterer and dropping their waste into the water that everyone needs to drink. (YUCK!) Even worse, as the chicks get bigger and heavier, they can knock the waterer over – which spills the contents, soaks the bedding and generally makes life miserable for everyone until you are able to clean it out.
For us, we will use a small quart sized waterer until the chicks are about 3 weeks of age. Then we will switch to the hanging version of waterer – making sure to pile up the shavings so that everyone can reach the water easily.
Plan Your Coop
The backyard chicken coop is a subject worthy of its own book. The incredible range of styles to these chicken abodes, are as creative as they are diverse. There are days it seems that no two coops are exactly the same. For this reason, I will not dive into the many nuances of each type of chicken coop, but rather focus on the objectives of what a good coop should provide.
A proper chicken coop should provide four main things; protection from predators, protection from the weather, a place to lay eggs and adequate space for roosting. Aside from these, I would also recommend choosing a design that provides easy access for you – and as much of that as you can get! This will really be helpful in the long run.
Protection from predators. It seems like every wild animal out there wants to eat one of your chickens. From flying predators to four legged carnivores, they all see a chicken as a prize worth waiting for. Even rats will go after baby chicks.
I’m sorry to say, but the deck is stacked against you.
Because of this, you really have to be on your ‘A’ game when thinking of a chicken coop. Chickens don’t see very well in the dark, which makes them even more vulnerable than they already are; as in, fat birds that can’t fly very well.
When planning a coop, the more you can fortify it, the better. For us, we used ¾ inch wood panel siding for the walls and ½ inch wire mesh for the floor. (FYI, anything larger than a ½ inch hole ANYWHERE in the coop and weasels can get in!)
Also, we overlapped and secured with screws where ever we could, making sure there was nothing loose enough to be pulled on.
I can not stress enough how important this aspect of raising chickens is. Wildlife will know there is food in your coop and they will work tirelessly to get at it. Raccoons are especially clever, so make sure your latches are heavy duty.
Another level of protection is the height of your roosting bars. Do NOT let your outdoor birds sleep at ground level or even on the floor of the coop. Nesting boxes are okay, provided they are up off the ground and difficult for crawling carnivores to get to. Just remember, the safest place for a sleeping chicken is on a roost that is at least waist high (taller ones are even better, provided the birds use them).
Protection from the weather. When it’s cold, what your birds will need the most is a dry place out of the wind. Heat is not necessary, provided the chickens are fully feathered. Ample amounts of straw might be appreciated, but what they need the most is a place where they can dry off and be out of any direct wind.
When it’s hot, however, they need shade and preferably something with a breeze. For this reason, we have put our coop next to tall tree. This allows us to take advantage of the shade. Also, the entire floor and both ends of the coop are open in the summer (covered with ½ wire mesh). This provides ventilation for those hot nights.
A place to lay eggs. Laying an egg takes a bit of time for your hen. It’s an effort for her, to be certain. For this reason, your nesting box should be up off the ground and preferably somewhere dark and quiet – in other words, not in the line of any direct traffic. Hens need to feel secure as once they start the process, they are committed to finish.
It’s also helpful to have the right amount of nesting boxes. If you don’t, you run the risk of one hen being harassed to ‘hurry up’ by another who ‘just can’t wait anymore’. For this reason, we recommend one nesting box for every three hens.
Also, make sure that you have easy access to the nesting box as you will not only be retrieving eggs everyday, but you will occasionally need to clean it out.
Adequate floor space. It might seem a little odd to put so much focus on the interior space of a coop when all the birds do is sleep and lay eggs in it. But chickens have their own personalities and like any large group, personalities can clash.
Currently, we have a Orpington who always manages to be the last one to go to bed at night. This is because of her timid personality. She is very much intimidated by the bigger ‘bossy’ birds and is nervous about going into the coop and trying to find herself spot. Consequently, I have to ‘shoo’ her in every night and then stand watch to make sure that she can get settled in without the ‘trouble-makers’ causing her grief.
The standard rule for how big a coop should be is 3 square feet per chicken.
For example, if your coop is 4 by 8 feet, then the square footage is 32 feet. In this case, it should be able to house 10 to 11 birds.
From personal experience, I can tell you that a 4 by 8 foot coop with 10 birds in it, is going to look like a lot of wasted space. But remember their personalities. Occasionally, one of the girls isn’t going to feel like being close the rest of the flock; think illness, injury or just a bad day. Giving her a little space is really going to help her out. (FYI, this kind of moodiness generally only lasts for a little bit – but keep and eye on things.)
### Important note ###
There is a difference between a chicken coop and a chicken run. A chicken coop is where your flock is going to sleep. A chicken run is a pen where your birds will spend their days ‘running around’. If you choose to confine your flock to a run, then understand that the run will need to be much larger than the coop.
Also, I didn’t talk about the placement of food and water like I did when planning a brooder. This is because your flock will be older and more familiar with the process. So as long as they can see it and its in reach, meaning the food and water, then it really doesn’t matter where you put it. However, it’s always a good idea not to leave the food and water outside at night. The wildlife will come to see this as a dependable source of nourishment and you don’t want that!
Chickens: Thinking Long Term
I’ve said it many times… chickens can be a blast! Their busy behavior will provide hours of entertainment. And their eggs are absolutely delicious! Once established, they require very little in the way of effort. When you consider what they do – eating insects, providing fertilizer, eggs and meat – then it’s easy to see just how much ‘bang for buck’ these backyard birds provide.
One piece of advise I always offer to anyone who is considering raising chickens, is to join a forum. The timely advise you will find on one of these boards is absolutely priceless. You’ll definitely see a range on expertise – everything from ‘first-timers’ to ‘all my life’. But the most amazing thing is, we’re all always learning (chickens make sure of that), so all input is welcome!
If you do your homework and take it slow, then raising chickens is a very rewarding process. Yes, store bought eggs can be cheaper, as well as, store bought meat. But quality comparisons aside, you are still getting soo much more than just eggs and meat.
Don’t believe me?
Try raising a few chicks with your family. If you do, you’ll know exactly what these rebel backyard chicken herders are talking about!